‘Where you can go to pee without people harassing you’: University of Utah students, LGBT center staffers audit campus restrooms for private spaces

(Courtney Tanner | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students made an inventory of the single-stall bathrooms at the University of Utah on Monday, Dec. 10, 2018.

When Bethany Runsten peered down a short hallway on the second floor and saw the restroom at the end, her eyes lit up.

“Yay,” she declared, partly excited but mostly exhausted after searching the building for 15 minutes. “We finally found one.”

She pushed open the door, pulled out a piece of paper and started taking notes. Baby changing station? “Check.” Shower? “No.” Urinal? “No.” Toilet and sink? “Yes and yes.” Then she marked a big “YES” next to building No. 71 on her map: the education complex at the University of Utah.

A student going down the nearby stairs gave her a weird look and kept walking.

Runsten was one of a handful of volunteers dispatched by the U.’s LGBT Resource Center last week to search out restrooms that offer privacy on campus and catalog their amenities as part of its “Bathroom Bonanza” event. The point was to map and audit restrooms where any individual, but particularly transgender students, may feel more comfortable and safe.

She had passed by several restrooms in building No. 71 before finding this one, tucked away from the classrooms at the back of the building where she takes most of her courses as a graduate student. This was the only one that had a single stall with a door that locked on the inside and a sign on the outside that didn’t designate male or female.

“Bingo,” she said. “It’s unisex. This building is good.”

The university needs restrooms “where you can go to pee without people harassing you,” said Ella Blanchard, interim director at the LGBT center, who is transgender.

“It’s surprising how often bathrooms are needlessly gendered,” she added. “It’s just not reality. There are more than two genders. To think we can capture it all in two bathrooms, that’s foolish.”

The U. has about 200 single-stall restrooms on campus. Even in those spaces, though, a lot of the signs still have a stick figure of a man or woman. Just a handful, like the one in the education building, say “UNISEX.”

The resource center has partnered with the U.’s Facilities Management to do the inventory and then, when it’s done, to perhaps update the signs to be uniform and gender neutral. If they’re installed, the new signs will just say “RESTROOM.”

The move comes after President Donald Trump rescinded last year the protections in place for transgender students to use whatever restroom corresponded with their gender identity. Individual public schools can still choose to be inclusive. And the U., which ranked second this summer for friendliest colleges for LGBT students, has supported the efforts to be accommodating.

The “Bathroom Bonanza” project launched in August after several individuals reported feeling frustrated over the lack of gender-inclusive restrooms at the LoveLoud Festival, an event created to raise awareness of at-risk LGBT youths, which was held at the U.'s Rice-Eccles Stadium this summer.

Runsten, who is also a graduate assistant for the LGBT center, teamed up with graduate student Jen Colby to search the communication building, the entrepreneur workshop, the dance center, the campus bookstore and the basketball arena.

At each space, they wrote down what was inside the restroom, took pictures and measured the sign on the outside so it could be replaced in the future.

(Courtney Tanner | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students made an inventory of the single-stall bathrooms at the University of Utah on Monday, Dec. 10, 2018.

There was one single-stall restroom at the Huntsman Center, compared with six restrooms each for men and women with multiple stalls.

“On a game day, that could get busy and uncomfortable,” Runsten remarked.

The sign, too, read “SPECIAL NEEDS RESTROOM.” Colby pulled out a yellow tape measure and held it to the placard. “Nine inches by nine inches,” she said.

“I just don’t get it,” she added. “It shouldn’t be a special need to use the restroom.”

While the signs varied, sometimes just trying to find the facilities proved difficult. Their map showed one private facility on the third floor of the language building. After circling it a few times, the two found just regular multi-stall restrooms.

“I just don’t think there is one,” Colby said, crossing it off. “It’s a fundamental human rights issue that shouldn’t be this hard.”

The one they had found at the education building was supposed to be on the first floor. Another team could only find one — instead of the reported two — in the Alumni House.

Before the groups started Wednesday, about 60 percent of the buildings on campus had been audited for single-stall restrooms. Volunteers will continue cataloguing them periodically.

The LGBT Resource Center used to keep a list of single-stall restrooms on its website. Now, the campus map has a feature that allows viewers to search for those that were on the now-outdated list. Lenny Liechty, a student staff member at the center, helped create that function.

Adding gender labels to restrooms, particularly single stalls, he said, creates “an unnecessary barrier.” A restroom for anyone “functions and operates the same.”

In one case at July’s LoveLoud Festival, a transgender woman was told that all of the restrooms at the event were gender-inclusive and that she could use a space nearby designated for men.

As she was washing her hands, she said, a man wearing LoveLoud volunteer credentials told her she was in the wrong restroom. He told her that if she wanted a gender-inclusive restroom, there were two in the general population area of the venue.

“I felt very frustrated and very unsafe,” Bobbee Trans Mooremon told The Salt Lake Tribune at the time.

Blanchard, the resource center’s interim director and coordinator of education and outreach, said the hope in completing the inventory at the U. is to avoid situations like that and just to get a sense of “what we have.” The spaces should be open to anyone who wants more privacy.

“The thought is focusing more on utility,” she said, “than identity.”